Is China's "Carrier-Killer" Really a Threat to the U.S. Navy?
Maybe not a "game changer," but a great complicator.
It seems tomorrow will be a big day for China-military watchers around the world: the mighty DF-21D, or “carrier-killer” anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) will likely be one of the features of Beijing’s end of World War II celebrations. But how much should America or anyone else in Asia fear this supposed killer of carriers?
The “carrier-killer” has been a favorite topic of mine for some time now. The weapons are launched from a mobile truck-mounted launcher into the atmosphere, with most likely over-the-horizon radar, satellite tracking and possibly unmanned aerial vehicles each providing guidance to a target in the open oceans. It also incorporates a maneuverable warhead, or MaRV, to help find its target.
The DF-21D would be instrumental in striking a vessel in the open ocean or denying access to a potential opponent in transiting to a conflict zone, like in the East or South China Seas. An August 2011 report by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense warned that: “A small quantity of the missiles [was] produced and deployed in 2010.”
When looking at this weapon, there are really two basic questions I have been asking for years: How capable is it? And if capable, can U.S. Navy vessels defend against it?
First, to its capabilities. According to the most-recent and up-to-date open-source materials I can find, the weapon indeed has been tested, however, never against an ocean-going, noncooperative target. As frequent TNI contributor Andrew Erickson pointed out in his 2013 study of the DF-21D (the best open-source resource on the “carrier-killer” to date):
“Additional challenges and tests remain before the DF-21D reaches its full potential; however, senior U.S. and Taiwan officials in the last two years have confirmed separately that the ASBM is in the field. Additionally, the basic support infrastructure is already sufficient to provide basic targeting capabilities against U.S. aircraft carriers operating in the Western Pacific (if countermeasures are not considered).”
As Erickson also noted, from the same text:
“The ASBM’s physical threat to U.S. Navy ships will be determined by the development of associated information processing systems and capabilities. This is part of a larger analytical challenge in which Chinese “hardware” continues to improve dramatically, but the caliber of the “software” supporting and connecting it remains uncertain and untested in war. The missile components of the DF-21D already are proven through multiple tests, but China’s ability to use the missile against a moving target operating in the open ocean remains unproven. The supporting command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) technologies probably still lag behind the requirement to identify and track a U.S. aircraft carrier in real time under wartime conditions. Improving C4ISR capabilities, however, is a high priority in China’s military modernization program. U.S. countermeasures are another matter entirely: there is every reason to believe that they are already formidable.”
With the above analysis done in 2013, we have every reason to assume that China has worked hard to perfect this weapon. In multiple conversations I have had with U.S. defense officials over the last year, most are working under the assumption that the DF-21D would in wartime conditions be able to at least initially target an ocean-going vessel and track such a vessel through its course to the target. Keeping in mind that Beijing would not fire just one of these missiles in combat—and would likely attack its target with other types of missiles in a saturation-style strike—there is certainly reason for concern.
Can America Defend Against the DF-21D?
Assuming the DF-21D is ready for battle, can America defend against China’s mighty missile?
While opinions are clearly mixed—in speaking to many sources over the last several years on this topic—it seems clear there is great nervousness in U.S. defense circles. However, as time has passed, initial fears have turned towards a more optimistic assessment.
Back in 2012 when I spoke to noted defense expert Roger Cliff, he explained that:
“[O]ver-the-horizon radars used to detect ships can be jammed, spoofed, or destroyed; smoke and other obscurants can be deployed when an imagery satellite, which follows a predictable orbit, is passing over a formation of ships; the mid-course updates can be jammed; and when the missile locks on to the target its seeker can be jammed or spoofed.”
He continues, noting an actual kinetic strike on the missile in flight might be the hardest part:
“The SM-3 has an exoatmospheric kill vehicle, meaning that it can only intercept the missile during mid-course, when it’s traveling through space, so an Aegis ship escorting the target would have to fire its SM-3 almost immediately in order to intercept the missile before it reentered the atmosphere, or else there would have to be an Aegis ship positioned right under the flight path of the missile. The DF-21D may be equipped with decoys that are deployed in mid-course, making the SM-3’s job harder. U.S. Aegis ships are also equipped with the SM-2 Block 4 missile, which is capable of intercepting missiles within the atmosphere, but the DF-21D warhead will be performing some high-G maneuvers, which may make it impossible for the SM-2 Block 4 to successfully intercept it.
How all this would work in reality is impossible to know in advance. Even after China has tested its missile against an actual ship, it won’t have tested it against one employing the full range of countermeasures that a U.S. ship would throw at it and, as you say, the U.S. Navy will never have tested its defenses against such an attack. Somebody is likely to be surprised and disappointed, but there is no way of knowing who.”
Indeed, as Cliff points out, U.S. carriers do have defenses, albeit against more traditional threats. However, it is important that we keep in mind that American carriers have been a target going back decades, and their defense has been something U.S. naval planners have been working on for many years.
Perhaps my favorite response to the DF-21D challenge is from the widely read blog Information Dissemination, that explains:
“Warships will continue to face new and challenging threats. If the past 125 years is a guide, naval weapon designers, and operational and tactical theorists will be ready to develop systems and operational and tactical measures to counter them. The DF-21D is a new threat, but it is not likely to be an operational and tactical surprise as were the Japanese A6M Zero fighter and the 24 cm Type 93 Long Lance surface torpedo to the U.S. Navy at the outset of World War 2. Open source reporting to date indicate the DF-21D has been tested against fixed land targets but not against a large moving target at sea. The U.S. Navy on the other hand has been working to counter the ballistic missile threat for over 20 years. There is certainly time to develop an effective counter to the DF-21D.”
China’s “carrier-killer,” just like many of Beijing’s weapons systems must be thought of as part of a larger anti-access strategy. If a conflict with Washington or another great power ever occurred, China is betting on using such weapons platforms to make any sort of intervention in the Taiwan strait, East or South China Seas as painful as possible. With that said, there is much we don’t know about the DF-21D, or how well it would work in an actual shooting war.
In the end, the weapon might not be the great “game-changer” that many point it out to be, but a great complicator. Let’s just hope the only times we see this missile are on a parade route.
Harry J. Kazianis serves as Executive Editor of The National Interest and a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest. He is the co-author and editor of the recent Center for the National Interest report: Tackling Asia’s Greatest Challenges - A U.S. Japan-Vietnam Trilateral Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula and on Linkedin.